Artistry vs. Technique in Ballet

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Ballerina striking a pose from Swan Lake.

Ballerina dancing Swan Lake. Text says: Artistry vs. Technique in Ballet

Is technique or artistry more important in ballet? That’s a complicated question that elicits strong opinions...

I would argue that ballet at its best is a perfect combination of technique and artistry, with neither one outweighing the other.

When I watch ballet, both are equally important to me. When I dance ballet myself, I tend to favor artistry.

I think this is a common theme among dancers.

Some are drawn to the technique: a strict system that, while demanding, is also comforting in its consistency. Others are drawn to ballet, not for the technique alone, but because the technique lends itself to a higher form of artistic expression.

The love of technique and the love of artistry are both valid reasons to dance.

And the two are intrinsically connected.

Technique enhances artistry, and artistry, in return, offers humanity and meaning to the steps.

What is artistry in ballet?

What are we discussing, exactly, in the technique vs. artistry debate?

Technique is easy enough to define. It is codified. Many books have been written on the subject of ballet technique. When we talk about technique, we mean correct placement, correct muscle engagement, and the overall skillful execution of ballet steps.

But what about artistry?

What is artistry, exactly?

Is it indescribable?

We’ve all heard phrases such as: “It can’t be taught” or “You either have it or you don’t.”

Is it true, though? Is artistry an intangible quality that some dancers have and some simply do not?

I don’t think so.

I think dancers of all ages and levels can develop artistry.

But artistry is fundamentally different from technique in that you must find it internally. Teachers can guide you but your artistry is forever your own. It isn’t codified. Artistry originates in the mind and the soul.

And yet, artistry has a technical layer, too.

Consider the subtleties of ballet, such as the tilt of the head, the position of the hands, the articulation of the foot across the floor, or the effortlessness of port de bras, achieved by engaging the back muscles — these things are technique and artistry intertwined, indistinguishable from one another.

Dancers must imbue these technical subtleties with emotional depth, and then the artistry enters that other plane — that next level of artistry that comes from within.

One might say there are two forms of artistry in ballet: the aesthetic subtleties of technique and the depth that dancers add to it. This depth comes from the dancer's emotional connection to both the movement and the music. 

Artistry is self-discovery

But what is the core, the heart of artistry?

To me, artistry is connection to self — both physical and spiritual self, both body and soul. It is a way to communicate truths about the human experience, either by acting a role or creating a feeling that resonates.

Artistry is genuine, authentic connection.

As a dancer, I prioritize artistry because, for me, ballet — and the way it helps me connect to my inner-self — has always provided relief, if only for a short time, from my struggles.

Ballet is my escape and my outlet for expression. I use ballet to physically articulate what I feel. It is a way to discover aspects of my personality I didn’t know existed and to rediscover aspects that had become dormant.

Even the smallest movements in ballet speak to me in a way nothing else can.

In ballet, a simple curtsy is full of emotion.

Ballet walks across a studio say something profound about who we are in the world.

Your head is high. Your chin is lifted. Your neck is long. Your shoulders are down and back. You pull your muscles up, higher and higher.

To dance ballet is to say: I am here, fully present, fully connected to my mind and body, and fully, unabashedly myself.

Ballet — the perfect combination of technical virtuosity and human expression — often feels perfectly fulfilling to people who love it.

Dancers develop artistry in class

Whether in class or on a stage, dancers have the opportunity to create artistry. I would argue that class is better suited than the stage for authentic artistry.

In class, dancers have the opportunity to be fully themselves.

Unlike a performance, in which there are many factors to consider — such as unison with the corps de ballet, portraying a specific role, or creating the mood a choreographer wants — dancers in a classroom setting can connect to the music and steps in whatever way feels most natural.

In class, dancers have complete artistic freedom, and each combination is an opportunity to explore how to become the artist you want to be.

Ballet class is a place to prepare for the stage, and even more so, a place to simply connect with oneself.

Has ballet lost its artistry?

Ballet has evolved significantly, with technical demands increasing with each passing year. Many worry that artistic expression in ballet is on the decline.

People often ponder: has ballet become too technical, too athletic, too full of tricks?

Is the artistry suffering?

Has ballet become a sport — similar to gymnastics or acrobatics — rather than the art form it was meant to be? Should we all slow down, take a deep breath, and remember the days of Anna Pavlova, who in Dying Swan brought people to tears with nothing more than bourrĂ©es and flailing arms?

Does ballet need to take the advice of Leonard Koren: "Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry”?

Does a ballerina need to raise her leg above her head, or is a well-placed leg just slightly above ninety degrees more poetic?

Do the tricks — the sky high extensions and quintuple turns — distract from the poetry?

The debate rages all around us, but the truth remains: technique and artistry are deeply connected in ballet and neither one can thrive without the other.

Artistry and technique need each other

Technique without artistry is impressive but hollow.

Artistry without technique, while it might be emotionally moving, is overall uninteresting to watch, if the audience wants ballet.

Artistic expression without skill might even be uncomfortable to witness. If a dancer expresses herself without technique, the audience might feel they are intruding on a private moment and wonder: Should I even be here?

Furthermore, dancers who express themselves well but lack technique are unlikely to be hired by a company. The fact is: You can’t get a job without technique.

All the same, company dancers without artistry are unlikely to rise above the corps de ballet.

Technique is essential and artistry is, I suppose — though I hate to admit it — less essential, at least in terms of getting a job. But the best ballet will always be a fluid mixture of both.

How do dancers develop artistry?

If you are struggling to create artistry in your dancing, my suggestion would be to ponder the following questions:

How can I embody the music?

Who am I, and why do I dance?

What does ballet mean to me?

What do I want to accomplish with my technique?

How does ballet help me become a truer version of myself?

How can I share myself with others through my dancing?

With these questions you can begin to explore your inner-self and find ways you can imbue your dancing with depth and meaning that you and only you — with your unique experiences and qualities — can share.

Because balletic artistry is the human-self expressed through the codified system of ballet technique.

To create artistry in ballet is to become vulnerable, to say: here is part of myself, and I am releasing it to anyone who might be watching — anyone who may or may not appreciate it.

Artistry may feel risky at times, but without it, ballet cannot thrive.